Five best convertibles for summer driving

Given the vagrancies of the great British weather, you might wonder why anybody with an ounce of grey matter would consider a soft-top. But the fact is, UK motorists bought an incredible 55,000 cabriolet last year, more than Spain, France and Italy put together.

And by cabriolet I mean a proper convertible, not a new fangled, folding metal hard-top that cocoons passengers from the noises and smells of the elements. They add weight and have been engineered for softies who just don’t like the sound of raindrops on a vinyl roof.

Our love affair with soft-tops goes back to the 1960s, when cars such as the E-Type Jaguar, MGB, Triumph TR6 and Alfa Romeo Spider were what every teenager wanted their dad to drive.

Sadly, I was forced to hold my head in shame, cowering on the back seat of my father’s Vauxhall Viva. No wonder I like to drop the hood whenever I can these days.

There are certainly plenty of models to choose from, and with prices to suit most pockets. Here’s my guide to the top five cars to make you want to slap on the suncream, buy a silly hat and listen to inappropriate music on the drive to the coast.

Porsche Boxster S: £46,112

The original Boxster was launched in 1996. Back then it was regarded a ‘poor man’s 911’ but that’s no longer the case. The latest version is an astounding car and will serve up just as many thrills for considerably less money.

The new model came out two years ago and although it looks very much a Boxster, this is virtually a new car. The styling is sublime, and the uprated S has a 3.4-litre engine in the boot that sounds more refined than Brian Sewell.

I’ve not a fan of Mr Sewell, so fortunately my test car was equipped with a sports exhaust. At the push of a button, it tweaked the sound of the twin tailpipes for a more Ray Winstone vocal.

Placing the engine behind the cabin gives the Boxster almost perfect weight distribution, making for effortless handling. The Porsche simply inspires confidence and you will feel like a racing driving in no time at all.

The audio system is touchscreen, the S has part-leather seats and the roof mechanism is something of a showstopper. You can even lower it while the wheels are still turning. It doesn’t eat into boot space because the Boxster has a front luggage compartment too.

All this luxury comes at a price and I discovered that some ‘must-have’ extras like sat nav (£2,141) and Bluetooth (£546) can easily bump the costs up to in excess of £50,000.

Is it worth it? Yes, though the Ray Winstone sports exhaust is an extra £1,473.

Lotus Elise S Club Racer: £35,600

Motoring_Convertibles_Lotus Elise S Club Racer_620The Lotus 7 was the star car in cult TV series The Prisoner. The modern-day equivalent is the Elise, a road-going missile that weighs about the same as a go-kart.

It handles like a go-kart too and on a winding country A-road it outperformed any of the other convertibles tested here. The S Club Racer is the ultimate version, designed for petrolheads who prefer the sound of a highly tuned engine to an in-car music system.

Which is one reason why I discovered the Club Racer doesn’t have a radio or any other niceties, like carpet or cupholders. It’s been stripped back to reduce weight, helping the rear-mounted, 1.8 supercharged engine to slingshot the Lotus to 60mph in just 4.2 seconds.

After stepping out of the Boxster, the Elise was a shock to the system – and my backside. The hard, racetrack seats are less comfortable than Bradley Wiggins’ saddle but this convertible is still crazy, ear ringing fun.

Nobody buys an Elise because it’s a practical car and the S Club Racer has really been designed as a weekend track car. However, it’s one you really can enjoy on the road too, provided you have ear-plugs and ample padding on your derriere.

Audi TT Roadster 1.8 TFSI: £25,825

Motoring_convertibles_Audi TT_620Some might argue that the Audi is not an iconic convertible. However, this was a car that threw the design book out of the window when it was launched in the 1998. It’s still instantly recognisable as a TT and for that reason, makes my top five.

As a direct rival to the Boxster, Audi opted for Quattro four-wheel drive to provide sure-footed handling. It left the engine under the front bonnet, rather than behind the driver and is very much a comfortable, two-seater for every day use.

The TT has morphed into a number of models in recent years and while offering a diesel variant rather waters down the image, this is still a fine cabriolet. My test car was the entry-level version, with a 1.8 petrol engine that makes the 0-60mph sprint in a relatively modest 7.4 seconds.

I had to work the 160bhp engine hard to get the most from it but the TT is every bit as exciting as the first one I drove 16 years ago. It also has a very attractive cabin, with quality materials and trim at every touch.

Like the Boxster, adding equipment quickly racks up the price, such as £515 for satellite navigation, £560 for leather trim and a hefty £1,280 for 18-inch alloys. Even so, it’s still much cheaper than the Porsche.

The TT is the most cost-effective way to get into a premium brand sports car. It has the right image, is well-built and won’t break the bank. The 208bhp, 2.0-litre petrol model is the pick of the bunch.

Mazda MX-5 1.8 SE: £18,495

Motoring_convertibles_Mazda MX5_620Anyone who tells you the MX-5 is a hairdresser’s car has probably never owned one. Here’s a convertible that offers everything: fine handling, great looks and is off the scale for driveability.

The cheapest version is the no-frills 1.8, simply fantastic value at under £19,000. That includes air conditioning, a decent soundsystem and central locking. For me, driving the MX-5 turns the clock back 30 years to my first MG. It’s just good, honest fun.

The engine is a little gruff compared to the competition and the 1.8 only has a five-speed gearbox but that’s not the point. Sit behind the steering wheel and it’s like slumping in to your favourite armchair. Everything feels correct and exactly where it should be.

The 1.8 needs some coaxing to reach 60mph in 9.9 seconds, so I could be tempted to opt for the 2.0-litre model instead. But the rear-wheel drive set–up and lightweight body ensure the entry-level MX-5 then comes into its own at speed.

There’s no electric hood but it’s still possible to operate the system from the driver’s seat with a bit of practise. The boot will take two large weekend bags, while a wind deflector and powerful heater keep the cabin cosy.

I promise the MX-5 will keep you and your bank manager happy for years to come.

Fiat 500C: £14,560

motoring_Convertibles_Fiat 500C High50

It’s more than 50 years since Fiat launched the first Cinquecento on to an unsuspecting public. The 500 is the new millennium model, launched in 2009 and already an astonishing success for the Italian brand.

Why? Well, just like the VW Beetle and Mini, it offers loads of style, great driving and relatively modest costs. The 500C is the convertible version and it’s impossible not to enjoy. That’s partly due to the interior, which is a retro masterclass and amplifies the feel good factor.

While the original 1957 convertible had a fabric roof that pushed out of the way, this one has an electric roof that glides back, leaving the sides of the car still intact. It’s a clever system that leaves the occupants feeling slightly less vulnerable, especially in an urban environment.

My 1.2 Lounge test car had a tiny 69bhp petrol engine that was best suited to city use. It’s sluggish off the mark but can return a whopping 66mpg. Standard equipment included Bluetooth, a great sound system and air conditioning.

There are super-frugal diesel versions and a red hot Abarth but my pick of the range is acclaimed TwinAir, a two cylinder unit of just 875cc that’s both quick and frugal. It also sounds fantastic with the top open and requires no road tax.

The 500C won’t be everybody’s cup of latte but it proves you can be a grown-up and still drive with a smile on your face.